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A Transformational Turnaround

How a skilled leader is changing the landscape in a chronically underperforming district

January 7, 2015
Lawrence receiver Jeff Riley reads to a group of students in Lawrence, Mass.

In January 2012, Jeffrey C. Riley, Ed.M.’99, took on a daunting challenge: figure out how to turn around the Lawrence Public Schools, the only school district in Massachusetts ever to be placed in state receivership.

A former school principal and deputy superintendent in Boston, Riley has made the nearly 30-mile trek north for the past three years as the district’s first receiver, overseeing a high-poverty school system that had suffered from chronic underperformance.

In this recent Harvard EdCast, Riley outlined the steps he’s taken as receiver and superintendent of a district of 33 schools educating 13,900 students — 91 percent of whom are low-income, and 70 percent with a first language other than English.

Among his methods of improvement: shunning a “one-size-fits-all” model of schools and embracing a variety of programs to educate all students. “At the end of the day, parents don’t care about charter, union, traditional, they just want a good school for their kids,” says Riley. “What we’re trying to do is say, ‘the school is the individual unit of change, and there are different ways to become a great school.’ We’re going to change the district by tipping it one school at a time.”

Today, with Lawrence’s standing in Massachusetts as the most improved school district for two consecutive years and with steadily rising graduation rates, Riley is the first to say that “the turnaround in Lawrence is not complete. We have a lot of work to do and we have a long way to go.”

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